King Richard and the Crusaders (USA) / The Talisman (UK)
Director: David Butler
Source: Amazon streaming video
This movie has the reputation of being one of the worst Hollywood epics of all time, and I’m here to tell you its reputation is well deserved: this one’s a real stinker, folks. Oh, on paper it sounds like a good idea: adapt The Talisman (1825), Walter Scott’s classic novel of the Crusades, cast George Sanders as King Richard the Lion-Hearted and Rex Harrison as Saladin, throw in Laurence Harvey and Virginia Mayo as the romantic leads, get Max Steiner to do the music, and the rest is cake! However, as soon as we’re past the opening titles it all starts to go wrong: a faceless narrator (ugh!) explains the historical situation of the Third Crusade, but the writing is just awful—and then people start to talk, and it gets worse. The script’s pompous blowhardery (yes, that’s a word now) is just unbelievable—oh, lordy, the stuff these poor actors have to say! The romance plot goes on the rocks in record time, not just because Harvey and Mayo can barely stand to look each other in the eye, but also because they clearly can’t believe how crappy their lines are.
Top-billed Rex Harrison made a career out of playing smugly superior characters so self-satisfied you want to punch them (a lot), and his rôle here, as the too-clever Saracen who’s always the smartest guy in the room, constantly putting one over on the doofus Christians, is made for him … though to be fair the Christians, to the last man and woman, are complete doofuses. The boring villains’ plots are ham-handed and obvious, but the putative good guys are so dense they barely know which end of the sword to hold, and spend all their time wrathfully blaming each other instead of the clumsy bad guys. The villains try to help identify themselves by wearing matching black uniforms, but nope!
As for poor George Sanders, he gets poisoned in the first few minutes and then spends half the movie on his back, grumpily making snarky remarks from the horizontal. His King Richard is nominally in charge of this Crusade, but there’s hokey political conflict with his rivals Ludwig of Austria and Philip of France, both ridiculous national caricatures—Ludwig is always drunk, while Philip limp-wristedly waves a fan of lavender feathers, fer chrissake. There are brief spasms of combat in which everyone flails around with heavy weaponry as if there were no such things as skill or finesse. There’s a contrived trial by combat, an absurd abduction of Mayo, and then everyone stops pretending they’re telling a coherent story and the film is reduced to the Hollywood lowest-common-denominator of frantic galloping through the California hills. It ends in the Worst Final Duel Ever, with Harvey and the boring chief villain atop a three-quarters-closed drawbridge, hanging by their arms and kicking at each other ineffectually. Come on! Screenwriter John Twist inexplicably continued to get work after this fiasco, thought it was mostly on tripe like “Helen of Troy” (1955). But it was the end of David Butler’s career as a director of feature films—he had to flee to television, where he directed 58 episodes of “Leave It to Beaver.” So maybe there is a God after all—or even an Allah.